The class of 2020 is getting a crash course in job market uncertainty

The class of 2020 is unsure and anxious about their professional prospects as they graduate college into a labor market ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
May 17, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC
Exeter, PA - April 22: Some of the signs made in school colors, reading "Class of 2020 Seniors #allinthistogether", during the distribution of the 2020 Senior signs that Denise Benfield and Carrie McCarty are having custom printed and selling for people to display in recognition of seniors who will not be able to have a graduation ceremony because of school cancellations due to the ongoing coronavirus / COVID-19 outbreak. They are operating out of the Wyndham Advisors office in Exeter Township Wednesday morning April 22, 2020. They are making signs for any school in Berks County, as well as for colleges, and will ship them or people can come to pick them up. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Ben Hasty—MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

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As they finish their final semester via Zoom, the class of 2020 finds itself steeped in anxiety, preparing to graduate into the most uncertain economy in modern history. And the coronavirus epidemic is changing their career plans in ways that range from disorienting to devastating. 

Tim Pietz, a senior at Taylor University in Indiana, got his “dream internship” at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, a unit of News Corp., for this summer. But it was ripped from his grasp when the company canceled the program just as graduation neared. 

HarperCollins spokesperson Casey Harnell wrote in an email that, due to coronavirus lockdowns and government-issued guidelines, “we did not feel that we could create an adequate learning experience for our interns, therefore, we are delaying the program until next summer.”

Pietz said he understood, but that he isn’t sure where to go from here in his search for post-grad work. 

“It just makes me very uncertain about where I might be going now professionally,” Pietz told Fortune. “And I feel like I can’t really actively pin down any jobs because everyone else is so uncertain they don’t want to hire.” 

Whether they’ve had job offers rescinded, start dates pushed back, or have yet to secure post-grad work, college seniors’ professional futures are more tentative than they ever dreamed as the public health crisis guts industries around the globe. 

“Hiring has slowed across the board,” economist AnnElizabeth Konkol said. “Overall, a very difficult time for new grads to be diving into the labor market.”

Julia LaBorde, a Louisiana State University senior, was offered a spot in credit provider Synchrony’s Business Leadership Program in August after she completed a summer internship with the company.
Courtesy of Julia LaBorde

Scott Dettman, CEO of “education to work” platform Avenica, which specializes in matching job seekers with entry-level career opportunities, said he finds the soon-to-be grads who don’t have jobs yet fall into two camps. There are those that entertain any opportunity, and those that are apathetic or discouraged, expecting to ride the crisis out and find a job once hiring picks up again. 

Christopher Perrello, director of career services at Syracuse University’s School of Information studies, said for the first time in his career, he’s seeing students who haven’t yet landed jobs seriously consider grad school in an effort to avoid entering a less-than welcoming job market.

“Normally I would say go out there, get a job, have an employer pay for your master’s program or get reimbursed for it,” Perrello said. “But right now, when the economy starts to slow down or there’s uncertainty, I think that a master’s degree is totally appropriate to consider.”

Working, in unexpected ways

Students that received offers before the coronavirus reached the states have fared much better than those that expected to interview in the spring and summer of 2020. 

At large companies like Synchrony, Fidelity, and Kraft Heinz, it’s customary to extend job offers to college students in the fall of their senior years. These three companies are honoring the commitments they made to interns and full-time hires this past fall, despite the uncertainty the coronavirus poses for their businesses.

Julia LaBorde, a Louisiana State University senior, was offered a spot in credit provider Synchrony’s Business Leadership Program in August after she completed a summer internship with the company. Each year, the BLP brings in around 35 new grads. Typically the BLP hires would rotate through roles in their chosen specialties, from data analysis to HR.

This year, however, LaBorde and the other incoming hires at Synchrony were asked to start work early in customer service, helping people defer payments and waive fees during the crisis as Synchrony’s call center employees shifted to remote work. 

LaBorde said that the remote training has been helpful and successful in its mission to give the new hires a crash course in customer service, but that it’s been difficult to miss out on the relationships she was expecting to build at the start of her career.

“I don’t know the other interns, I don’t know the other full-time people, I don’t even know the person doing the training outside of the training,” she said. “I think having an in-person connection with someone really goes a long way.” 

Maliek Kelly, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, reported for duty around a month earlier than his official start date at asset manager Fidelity.
Courtesy of Maliek Kelly

Maliek Kelly, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, found himself in a similar situation. He reported for duty around a month earlier than his official start date at asset manager Fidelity. Working remotely from his mom’s house in Blandon, Pa., he is helping clients with financial-filing paperwork as an associate financial analyst. “I’ll be able to hit the ground running, despite what’s happening,” Kelly said. “Being able to start a bit early and begin learning things that I’ll need down the road is very exciting to me.”

But many of Kelly’s friends aren’t as lucky. “I’d say for anyone that has spoken to a company or has been offered something, it’s still in the works, but the date might be pushed back,” Kelly said. “Besides that, I think it’s pretty tough right now.”

Anastasia Velliotis, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, echoed Kelly’s sentiment about her friends’ prospects. She said the majority of people in her circles that had already accepted jobs have kept them, but fear that as lockdowns across the country extend, their job security is up in the air.

“The only thing that would probably change [for me] is I might start virtually, which isn’t ideal, but if it happens, it’s for the best,” she said of her own job security. Kraft Heinz has committed to keeping all of its new hires, including Velliotis, on board.

Anastasia Velliotis, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has her first day—for now—in the Kraft Heinz Trainee Rotational Program on July 13.
Courtesy of Anastasia Velliotis

Her first day—for now—in the Kraft Heinz Trainee Rotational Program is July 13. Trainees rotate through departments to get a feel for different roles much like the new hires in Synchrony’s BLP do. Hayden Kornblut, head of university relations at Kraft Heinz, said the company is cautiously optimistic that the incoming class of full-time hires will be able to start in person this summer. This year’s intern class, however, has already been notified that their 10-week stint with the company will be virtual. 

Looking forward, Kornblut said, Kraft Heinz and its COVID-19 task force are already planning for fall recruitment of 2021 grads. Whether students find themselves on campus next semester or not, Kornblut promised the company will find a way to recruit. 

As businesses begin scouting new hires again, said Dettman of Avenica, the criteria for evaluating talent will have to change. For instance, entry-level hiring used to be based heavily on in-person interview performance. And that, he said, led to hiring the best interviewees rather than the best employees.

Now, he predicts that companies will be focused on finding self starters with the ability to independently manage themselves, as necessitated by the remote work pandemic has forced many into. He also said that analysis of digital presence and social media profiles will be increasingly important in lieu of in-person evaluation.

Whether members of the class of 2020 already have a job or are waiting to interview as recruiting and hiring picks back up, that first job is pivotal, Dettman said. And a gap in the resume or taking a low-paying job they’re overskilled for will affect these young professionals for years to come.

“Where someone starts their career is incredibly predictive of where they’re going to finish their career,” Dettman said. 

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “A rocky start for recent college grads.”

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